Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Utupo & Rees Under The Radar; Reaction Over the Top

The reaction in some corners to the most recent ND recruiting developments has me in a more reflective mood (more reflective than usual, I guess). It's not to slight these two men who've just signed on to the program when I say I had know idea who they were or if they were being recruited by Notre Dame until after they announced they'd committed. That such a thing would be consider "odd" says a lot more about me, and the somewhat uncomfortable direction the business of college football has been heading in for some time, than it does about these players.

"Recruiting" used to be a lot different. Coaches, particularly old-timers, acknowledge as much when they have to try and pretend that it's really them using Facebook and Twitter to keep up with the latest high school studs. The explosive powers of the internet have long since put an end to the days when only a select few, if any, high school athletes could garner national attention, to say nothing of the fact that the permanent revolution in the televising and marketing of college sports is expanding the selection of schools every year that a player might find desirable. Put it this way - in 1986, Rocket Ismail knew that only a handful of schools would truly showcase his talent to the whole country, Notre Dame of course being one of them. In today's age, with the power of YouTube and Facebook behind him, Rocket could've been an even bigger star while attending Central Connecticut, because we all would've known about him long before he ever put on a college uniform.

That's why most college football fans are consuming highlight reels and obsessing over star rankings more and more with each passing year. The information is so available - and the players so heavily scrutinized for so long when, only 15 years ago, such proclamations would've been laughed at - that the built-in assumption is that only schools who stockpile 15 "five-star" kids per year are collecting anything resembling a talent base.

To that end, the two commitments Notre Dame picked up on the heels of the July Fourth weekend inspired another idiotic round-robin among the message board and blog community over if the coaching staff had been reduced to scraping the bottom of the barrel. The players in question: DE Justin Utupo (left) of Lakewood, CA & QB Tommy Rees of Lake Forest, IL (above, right). Neither rated in the national top 100 nor the national top 10 at his position. Both were the "last spot", theoretically, for their position in this recruiting class (the Irish now have three defensive ends committed and two quarterbacks, about the norm for a recruiting year which follows one that was light on those roster areas). And both had unwanted distinction of being "the next guy on the list" after other, more highly-touted prospects had chosen schools other than Notre Dame. So the legion of armchair recruiters took to the keyboards and, while not critiquing these two players, certainly held the coaching staff in contempt for "failing" to meet the Notre Dame standard when it comes to the acceptable talent level for recruits. Some of you must surely be thinking "Where have I seen this movie before?"

Of course, I too am an "armchair recruiter" too easily swayed by "eye-popping" scouting reports or ludicrous highlight reel cuts, so it would be unfair of me to launch into a rant about how all the other guys doing the same thing are being unfair. I also would not dispute the notion that if a "bigger name" in the quarterback department such as Blake Bell or Devin Gardner had committed, Tommy Rees probably wouldn't be in the position to get an offer from Notre Dame.

That doesn't mean Rees isn't a good player.

It also doesn't mean he'll blossom into a great player, as if flying below the radar automatically marks one for greatness. Many guys aren't hyped on Scout & Rivals because they just aren't that good (and thank God I never played football to let these guys get a crack at me, because I'd have rated straight zeros). Yet we'd all be well served by remembering that (and the pun is unavoidable here) the stars do not always align. Even if both of these players were the best in their class, the expectation should not be that Rees or Utopo would automatically arrive on campus a starter and rack up untold personal glories along the way (that's what it would be, but that wouldn't make it less absured). We also develop amnesia about the fact that such expectations get thrust on a select 40 to 50 players heading off to many different programs every year, and every year without fail we look back on the class from a few years prior only to wonder how a lot of those other "can't-miss kids" become footnotes in a Where Are They Now? piece. That should tell us how flawed the process is. Yet we (reliably) keep coming back for more.

Over at Blue-Gray Sky, they have made a project of yearly evaluations on how right (and just as often, how comically wrong) those predictions and expectations turned out to be. Checking out the analysis of how the class of 2009 panned out nationally (in other words, which of last year's seniors were supposed to be the best in the country when they came out of high school) gave me pause. For every Rey Maualuga and Jonathon Stewart, bona fide All-Americans and future NFLers, we find a Fred Rouse, Tray Blackmon, or Luther Brown, who never rose above bit player status if they were lucky, and wound up in prison if they weren't (#20 Melvin Alaeze, DE - conveniently enough one of Ron Zook's first "big catches" at Illinois). Heck, the player who earned pretty much unanimous acclaim as the best in his class once he actually, you know, got on the field - Arkansas's Darren McFadden - ranked #51 with Scout.com's national list. Can you imagine anybody during the fall of 2007 arguing that Darren McFadden wasn't one of the 50 best players in the country? But in the spring of 2005, when the recruiting evaluations came, before any one of these players had played a single down, such an opinion might as well have been the law of the land.

So in the end, all I really know about Justin Utupo and Tommy Rees is this: they play football, reasonably well we can assume, as multiple Division I bowl championship subdivision coaching staffs have extended them full scholarship offers (top contenders for Utupo included Oklahoma State, Oregon State, Utah, BYU, Missouri, & Nebraska, while Rees had offers from Tennessee, Stanford, and also Miami-OH where former Irish offensive coordinator Mike Haywood is now head coach). Presumably such offers were extended because every staff believes this two young men can develop both into football players who can help them win and good young men who can represent their school with pride. How long it will take or how "great" they will be is a question beyond anybody's ability to answer. Long ago, in an age before Tom Lemming, this was how it was done all the time. Coaches had a vast informal network of scouts who passed along the word about a certain kid, they followed up, and they either offered the kid a scholarship or not. It was also easier then to offer lots of kids whether they were all great or not, considering the 85-man limit wasn't in effect. But now, in the age of viral videos and high school football on ESPN every week, clearly any kid who doesn't rate a 6.0 on the Rivals.com scale is a bum. Further, and I think this was the point a lot of people were hung up on, the coaches who would even think of recruiting such kids are bums grasping desperately for somebody, anybody, to be a warm body in the class and would be better off at a MAC school.

Of course the irony in all of this is that a lot of the shortcomings of a program (especially Notre Dame) will be be ascribed to a failure of recruiting, and then fans/pundits will try to build up some goodwill and patience during struggles by pointing out "look how good the recruiting is going!", when in truth it may not be all that different than it was before. It's still the crapshoot it was in 1975, it's just that now the average fan who wouldn't know about half of Notre Dame's roster until they actually played against Michigan during their sophomore year now knows about every player on the roster and how they performed during week 2 of their junior year...of high school.

I've said it before, I just think the whole process of recruiting and trying find the "secret" of it is the ultimate chicken-and-egg proposition. To back up my point: last year's Heisman Winner, Sam Bradford? A three-star recruit. Now, was he just 'horribly' misevaluated? Was he superbly developed by a coaching staff that knew his exact talent and molded every part of the offense around him? Was it a combination? Or was it intangibles? From now on, I think I'm gonna adopt a 'Justice Potter Stewart describes pornography' approach to identifying "legit football talent":

I can't define it, but I know it when I see it. And I haven't seen Justin Utupo or Tommy Rees play yet.

However, ESPN has, so here's their take. Get excited or depressed at your own discretion. Utopo:
Utupo is an active defender. He plays a little out of position in high school as a defensive tackle, but we feel he will make the move to defensive end in college. He has solid size though he looks as if he may not be as big as listed. He will use his hands to shed and make a play on the ball. Does a good job of being able to get to the shoulder of the blocker and get in the gap. Does a good job of being able to stay square and keep himself in a position to make a play. He displays good speed and short-area change-of direction skills. He will leave his feet at times, but for the most part is a physical wrap-up tackler. As a pass rusher he can create some push and work off the block. Utupo combines some ability with effort and can be productive.
...and Rees:
No evaluation available at this time.
Doesn't ESPN realize half the ND fanbase is trying to anoint this kid the next Joe Theismann, and the other half is ripping into the staff for "whiffing" on all the good QBs, thereby getting stuck with this bum? Get it together! (Rees' profile does come with video, though.)

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